I’ve read a lot of posts like this one over the last twenty-four hours since the UCSB shooter incident. I’m going to add my voice to what I hope will become a cacophony because it’s important that we – women – are heard. It’s also important to remember that each of us has his or her own unique experience, that these problems are faced by other minorities and oppressed classes besides women, and that it is vital that any and all people who experience abuse, harassment, and threat for being who and what they are deserve basic human dignity, be they men or women or trans, be they gay or straight, be they white, black, purple, blue, yellow, tan, brown, orange, red, pink, green, or multicolored.

As far as life experience goes, I’ve led a fairly privileged one. I am white, from an upper-middle-class background, went to private school, and am overeducated (I’m an academic, that last one goes without saying). I have a job, cats, a husband. The life I lead is heteronormative and privileged. I have food every day, whatever I want, and I own more electronic devices than I know what to do with. In the grand scheme of things, I have it pretty damn good.

But none of that means I’m immune from the plethora of things that are now being hashtaged #Yesallwomen. I stopped counting the number of catcalls and offers of dates I’ve received a long, long time ago. Some were polite. Many were not.

In grade school, my best friend and I were taunted for being lesbians because we only ever hung out with each other.

In high school, I was verbally harassed on a daily basis. Sometimes sexually, sometimes not.

When I was 19, I was groped in a bar in England. Yes, I’d been drinking. This is when I learned that my instinctive response to this is violence, and I left the groper lying on the floor while my companions hustled me out of the club. That same year I was thrown across a room in my dorm for refusing to obey orders from one of my drunken “friends.”

While at work on the Freedom Trail, I received a variety of offers to “do it like the Puritans,” offers to help me out of my colonial dress, and to “engage in reenactment” with a man in a Redcoat uniform from another site whose response when I said “No thanks, I’m married,” was “That’s okay, me, too.”

Once on my way home from work (while in grad school), I was used as a masturbatory aid by a man whose face I never saw on a very crowded T.

Over the last two years, I have dressed up as a gold statue and been harassed repeatedly while working. One man pressured me for my hotel room number. Another offered to help scrub the gold paint off me. Others just made general lewd comments. Most of us had our butts grabbed more than once per evening.

Last week, while wearing running shoes, jeans, and a rainbow tie-dyed tshirt, I was told to “work it baby, yeah” while walking down the street to the grocery store.

I am not a particularly “sexy” person. If you saw me on the street, that horrible phrase that should never be uttered (“She’s asking for it”) would never occur to you. I use power tools, I play videogames, and I lift weights. I’d rather be called buff than hot. And yet, I can’t go to the grocery store closest to my house after 8pm without being propositioned (in three years – if I go after 8pm, someone has to hit on me, sometimes politely, more often not).

I am not telling these stories for pity. There are far more people out there who are far more deserving of sympathy than I am – I tell these stories precisely because they are seen as so very banal. Because I don’t really think about them unless someone brings up the fact that our culture not only permits, but even encourages such behavior.

These stories of mine are so ordinary, so pervasive, that every woman who reads this will have a dozen more just like them, and many women will have stories that are far, far worse.

That that is unacceptable.

Let’s Be Critical

So I’ve recently started doing more research into what’s been written about games, and games and gender in specific. The answer, sadly, is “not much,” and I’m not only speaking about volume, but also depth. While there certainly are some worthy pieces out there in the aether, they are few and far between.

For one thing, some of the best criticism I’ve read about games and gender has been journalistic; this isn’t in and of itself a problem, but it does raise the question why academic works touching on the question aren’t doing as good a job as journalists – especially when academics generally pride themselves on critical rigor. Journalism also doesn’t rely on research and theory nearly as heavily as the academy, which means that even brilliant pieces of journalism lack some of the components academics look for simply by virtue of genre. And it’s great that there are good critical journalistic pieces out there – but they aren’t the kind of criticism I’m looking for (neither, by the way, is this blog – nor is it meant to be).

Nick Yee’s The Proteus Paradox (2013) has theory, research, and thoughtful criticism, but it isn’t focused on the parts of games that I, as an academic with training in literary criticism, am looking to find. It’s a good book, but I want to find more pieces that engage not only in social scientific inquiries, but also humanities-based research. In short, I want to see more of what I want to do: narratological (with or without ludological) analysis of games with regards to their impact on questions and discussions about gender and identity.

I’ve seen a couple of well-done pieces in the Approaches to Digital Game Studies series edited by Gerald A. Voorhees, Josh Call, and Katie Whitlock, although not generally focused on gender questions, and I was hoping to find (but didn’t) similar pieces in From Barbie to Mortal Kombat and Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat. Instead, I find repeats of the same, tired, and (I believe) misleading idea that women don’t play games because there’s something different about women and girls. Maybe it isn’t that we can’t play games, maybe it’s that we just don’t like them…yadda yadda.

It’s disappointing to find that even the critics to whom I would turn for a good critical feminist analysis are coming back with “Look, a damsel!” as the most complex example of criticism they can produce. Yes, there are a lot of damsels in games. Let’s move on now to something more interesting, like, say, examining the precise nature of how this particular damsel functions as social commentary, either positive or harmful.

I try to do some of this in my reviews, and do it moreso in the pieces I have published on Dragon Age (although not on gender, yet), but most places I look don’t have that kind of critical depth. Instead, most writers seem to feel obligated to defend their choice to write on games for at least the first three pages of their article. I think that by now we need to move past that defensiveness and start doing the kind of critical work that many of us have been trained to do – focus in on details and context, do the research, invoke the theory, and analyze the games.

And that means, for the love of all that is and is not holy, that you must play the games in order to write about them. As both a gamer and an academic who writes on games, there is nothing more infuriating than realizing someone is analyzing a game that they haven’t played. If you want to talk in general terms about it on your blog or in a catalog piece, then fine, but if you’re going to present yourself as a gaming academic and write on a game in academic circles, you had better have played that game. Repeatedly. Maybe even on legendary.

The point is, we can’t both complain that people don’t take our work seriously as feminist critics and then not play the very games that we set out to analyze. Our voices are dismissed because we become enmeshed in social justice projects to “get more girls to game” or “desexualize female characters” and lose our ability to explain why those things are problematic to begin with. We can’t criticize games for objectifying women without also demonstrating that those games do objectify women and that, in doing so, those games are doing harm to the social perspective of women. If we want to call ourselves feminist critics of games, then we need to go back to the games, analyze the games as texts, and play them with every bit as much attention as we would read our Butler or Foucault or Irigaray.

Pink and Purple Unicorns

Several recent things have come together to spur this post, including the always-unfortunate reading of internet comments, my Twitter feed, and my academic research. First, I’ve recently read From Barbie to Mortal Combat, published in 1998, and have started working my way through Beyond Barbie and Mortal Combat, published in 2008. Second, I recently read a news story about how women are no longer to be permitted to teach Bible classes at some Christian colleges. Third, the following tweet:

What they all have in common is the assumption – or, in Todd’s case, challenging the assumption – that women must somehow want something inherently different than men, or, as the next sequence of tweets suggests, that women are somehow biologically deficient when compared to men:

Maddy’s tweets (and I did skip several intervening ones that illustrate rather colorfully just how angry this concept makes her) show another fundamental problem facing not only women, but all minorities in most situations (not just gaming). It’s the kind of warped Darwinian logic that was used in prior centuries to explain why people from Africa were intellectually inferior to people from Europe – and, like that argument, the claim that women have poor reflexes is the consequence not of genetics, but socialization.

Men have better game-playing reflexes in general because more men than women play games from an earlier age. More boys are expected to play videogames than women. More boys are taught to play sports. All of which hone coordination and reflexes. Mythbusters recently did an experiment about the myth of “throwing like a girl” in which they learned that men and women throw exactly the same with their off hand – meaning that men’s supposed natural ability is conditioned by their expectations, both taught (in playing) and observed (watching men play professional baseball, for instance).

That aside, the notion – which seemed to be accepted without much problematization in From Barbie to Mortal Combat – that women must necessarily want something different than men (physical abilities aside) is equally ludicrous. While it is true that women are socialized to like pink sparkly things, unicorns, and rainbows, women and girls are not genetically programmed to like them. In fact, a few centuries ago, blue was considered feminine (one of the reasons the British Army wore red).

Women and girls are no more genetically predisposed to like Barbie Fashion Designer than they are anything else; their supposed preferences are entirely socialized. Socialization doesn’t make those desires any less real, of course, or any less valid, but the point I’m making here is that there is no intrinsically “feminine” way that games must be in order to attract female players.

The answer to Todd’s question above shouldn’t be “What can games do to be more attractive to women?” but “How can games be less hostile to women?” Really, that’s the point where we (still) are in games; games objectify women, they victimize women, they place women in positions of little to no agency or control. And the gaming community is no better – perhaps even worse.

If you are a developer who wants more female gamers, then make your community and your game inclusive of women, rather than exclusively for women. Men and women don’t have to be dichotomized, and in fact shouldn’t be. Instead, games – any component of a modern and egalitarian society – should include everyone, catering not to a generic player (who is by default white, male, and straight), but to all players.

Keep Your Kinect to Yourself, Thank You

This week, Xbox announced that they would be offering an XBox One (not-so-affectionately known as the Xbone) without the Kinect system, something they had originally said would not be an option. This is the only way I will ever be convinced to purchase one, so the news makes me rather happy, since I expect that sooner or later my Xbox 360 is going to go the proverbial way of all electronic devices and flesh.

Here’s why I abhor the Kinect. It isn’t that I don’t want to play games involving wildly flailing limbs (although I’m not really big on that idea), nor is it that I don’t want to give my Xbox voice commands (although, again, given its propensity for misunderstanding things, that also isn’t really a big thing for me), it’s really more that I find it profoundly creepy that any of my electronic devices that aren’t also medical devices (and, really, I don’t own any of those) might be interested in my basic vital statistics.

The Kinect can tell my body temperature, my heart rate, the distribution of heat on my body, and the difference between me, my husband, my cats, and any friends we might have over (and if they have Xbones with Kinect, it might even be able to tell who they are). Since it is not a certified medical professional, I don’t want it knowing that much about my person, thank you. I don’t want to be able to walk into someone else’s house (with a Kinect), and have their Xbone recognize me based on biometrics. That’s just a little too far in the direction of an Orwellian Big Brother to make me at all comfortable, and when the original Xbone announcement was made, I remember thinking, “No, thank you. I guess I’ll be buying a PS4 when my 360 dies.”

Well, although I am most likely going to purchase a PS3 in the next year or so, Microsoft just managed to make it 100 times more likely that when my 360 dies (or when developers stop making games for the 360, whichever happens first) I will bite the proverbial Kool-Aid bullet and buy an Xbone instead of a PS4. And it won’t be able to tell me when I have a temperature or suggest that perhaps I need to cool down and take a drink of water. I guess I’ll just have to figure that out all on my own.

Life Choices

A few days ago, Border House writer Gunthera1 posted a review of the new Nintendo 3DS Tomodachi Life that highlights one rather glaring absence, the ability of players to choose to “marry” someone of the same gender in the game. The premise behind Tomodachi Life is life simulation; the Miis in the game interact with the other players’ Miis as friends, enemies, and even romantic partners, as long as both Miis are straight, of course. Same-sex couples – or even bicurious Miis – need not apply.

In response to a fan outcry and hashtag #Miiquality campaign (started by Tye Marini), Nintendo released the following statement:

Nintendo never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of ‘Tomodachi Life’. The relationship options in the game represent a playful alternate world rather than a real-life simulation. We hope that all of our fans will see that ‘Tomodachi Life’ was intended to be a whimsical and quirky game, and that we were absolutely not trying to provide social commentary.

Aside from the at-best-privileged-ignorance-and-at-worst-bigoted assumption that the vast majority of their players would have no interest in pursuing virtual same-sex relationships (which is a strange assumption), Nintendo’s insistence that “we were absolutely not trying to provide social commentary” does a couple of highly problematic things. First, it assumes that games do not inherently contain “social commentary” simply by virtue of being cultural artifacts. They do. (So do tv shows, movies, books, and every other form of popular culture in existence.)

Second, it assumes that their audience isn’t smart enough to realize that someone had to code in heterosexuality as not only the default, but as required. Including a “romance” mechanic between Miis without gender distinction seems to me (and I’m admittedly not a programmer) to be a simpler thing to code than a “romance” mechanic with prohibitors based on the gender identity of a Mii. In other words, somebody made the choice to make all the Miis straight. Somebody (maybe the same somebody, maybe a different somebody) approved that choice, or even demanded it. Which means that even if the company at large didn’t mean “to provide social commentary,” somebody did.

Gunthera1 rightly suggests that this is an obvious, glaring, and even deliberate oversight on the part of Nintendo’s design team: “They decided who is included and who is excluded.” Games writer Samantha Allen made a similar post on Polygon, saying that “The more words a company needs to use to justify its exclusionary choices, the more simple its motivations. Call it a queer version of Occam’s razor. Behind all the corporate jargon and flowery public-relations language lies hatred, pure and simple.”‘

Whether or not Nintendo’s exclusion of non-heteronormative couples is “hatred” or privileged ignorance or a horrific miscalculation of audience demographic may be debatable, but – no matter how you read Nintendo’s intentions – it nevertheless sends a harmful, hurtful, and even (yes) hateful message to players. Those whose preference for same-sex Mii romance is precluded are rejected from fully participating in the game. Those whose personal preference might include same-sex partnerships feel insulted and marginalized (even more so than they already are). And, perhaps worst of all, those whose paradigmatic view of the world suggests that anything outside of heteronormativity is condemnable have their warped ideological position ratified.

To be fair to Nintendo, following the posts from Gunthera1 and Allen, the #Miiquality campaign, their PR department issued a second statement on May 9, 2014:

We apologize for disappointing many people by failing to include same-sex relationships in Tomodachi Life. Unfortunately, it is not possible for us to change this game’s design, and such a significant development change can’t be accomplished with a post-ship patch. At Nintendo, dedication has always meant going beyond the games to promote a sense of community, and to share a spirit of fun and joy. We are committed to advancing our longtime company values of fun and entertainment for everyone. We pledge that if we create a next installment in the Tomodachi series, we will strive to design a game-play experience from the ground up that is more inclusive, and better represents all players.

 Gunthera1 also posted a follow-up on Border House, stating that although

I am disappointed that this was not included in the original game. I am angry and hurt by the words of that first press release…I am hopeful for the future. This new statement shows that Nintendo realizes that lesbian, gay, and bisexual players ARE their fans and that their representation in games (or lack thereof) does matter. My hope is that this realization spreads within Nintendo and into the mindset of other companies. This is a matter that goes beyond Tomodachi Life and into all games.

I’m not sure that I feel the same sense of “hope” that Gunthera1 does, although perhaps that is simply a matter of my generally jaded response to PR statements that seek to shove dirt and grime under the rug by wailing “we didn’t mean it!” as loud as they possibly can. But I do see the point here; at least Nintendo did make a second statement that recognizes the diversity in their player-base. I’m skeptical of the claim that Tomodachi Life can’t be patched to permit non-heterosexual relationships, although I do understand that it may more be a matter of “we’ve already moved on to our next project” than it is “we can’t do it.” This is even more likely to be true of the company doesn’t expect Tomodachi Life to be particularly lucrative.

The May 9 follow-up is, as Gunthera1 suggests, better. It is more hopeful than a dismissal of diversity or a claim that – as we so often see in response to demands to include more women in games – “that’s not what fans want.” While I’m hesitant to call it a step forward, it at the very least is not a step back, and I suppose that’s something worth validating, even if not celebrating.

For now, I’ll wait to pass judgment until the next game is released, and will continue to look forward to games – like BioWare’s Dragon Age: Inquisition due out in October – that deliberately embrace diversity instead of (deliberately or not) excluding it.